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November 26, 2014
by Lisa La Rose, M.A., L.P.C.

Art & Healing: How Art Therapy Can Help Heal Emotional Trauma

November 26, 2014 05:55 by Lisa La Rose, M.A., L.P.C.

Traumatic events can happen to anyone at any time, and they are outside the realm of normal experience. Experiencing something that is perceived as very dangerous or life threatening like assault, serious accidents or illness, violence, and natural disasters can overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope (Russell, n.d.).  People will experience different levels of distress and symptoms after something traumatic occurs, and what is traumatic to one person may not be to another.  Adults and children can experience significant and debilitating symptoms of anxiety or even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following exposure to a traumatic experience, and counseling and support can help them overcome their symptoms and return to their lives.  

Several different types of counseling, including Art Therapy, are available and have been shown to help people heal from the effects of emotional trauma (Moon, 1994).  Art Therapy, specifically, has been a treatment for mental illness for over 100 years, but it is a type of therapy that people may not consider when seeking help.  This type of therapy can help both children and adults to process a traumatic event and begin to heal (Art Therapy and Mental Health, 2009) 

The Emotional Impact of Trauma

Emotional trauma can create psychological and physical symptoms in otherwise healthy people.  For example, in recent years, we have become much more aware of and sensitive to the emotional challenges faced by soldiers and veterans during and after their military deployments. Emotional symptoms they may develop are not a sign of weakness, and symptoms can even be a normal response by the brain and nervous system to an event that is anything but normal.  Following a traumatic event, a person may experience mild to severe symptoms of anxiety or even Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder (Russell, n.d.).  According to Laura Russell, PhD, emotional symptoms of trauma may include:

  • Episodes or re-experiencing the event (including flashbacks)

  • Sleep disturbance and nightmares

  • Easily startled (bring very jumpy)

  • Avoiding things, places, people or conversations that remind them of the event

  • Emotional numbing or shutting down

  • Irritability/Anger

  • Memory problems/amnesia

  • Anxiety/panic

  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy

  • Guilt about being a survivor of an event

  • Depression with or without suicidal thoughts

All of these things can impair a person’s functioning at work or school, and in relationships (Russell, n.d.). However, it’s important to know that help is available and most people can recover from trauma and get back to living life and experiencing happiness and peace again.

What is Art Therapy All About?

Art Therapy is not a new approach to helping people manage and decrease emotional suffering, and it was first considered as a therapeutic approach in the mid-1800s. Published in 1922, the book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, generated interest in the artwork of people with mental illness, and how their artwork may help with diagnosis and treatment. The artwork was considered a sort of “symbolic speech” that had the same value as verbal communication (Art Therapy, 2014).

Just like speaking or writing, art is a form of communication and expression. The artist, Georgia O’Keefe, said, “I found I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things I had no words for” (Art Quotes).  So, what does a client actually do in an Art Therapy session, and what is the role of the Art Therapist?  Sometimes emotions are difficult to express and people start feeling that they are “stuck”.   This is when Art Therapy can help. Some of the benefits of Art Therapy include:

  • Allowing the person to express and work through difficult and complex emotions, without having to speak (e.g. anger, fear, sadness, grief)

  • Helping the person access the more creative aspects of themselves—using the right brain

  • Enabling the person to use a variety of mediums to express themselves and process feelings (e.g. paint, clay, paper, collage, pencils, markers, photography, etc.)

  • Increasing insight and creating “ah ha” moments of clarity and understanding (Why Art Therapy, 2014).

Art Therapists believe that creativity and artistic expression can help people to reduce stress, resolve conflicts, improve self-esteem, and achieve insights that will enable them to live a more fulfilling life (Moon, 1994).  The Art Therapist is a trained professional who helps guide and support the individual during the therapy process, and many times, the Art Therapist is also an artist themselves.  The therapist may suggest an art medium or allow the client to choose something that appeals to them. They then explore the art with the client to increase insight and awareness.  For children, the therapist may suggest a topic or activity, such as drawing a house (How Art Therapy can Help Children, 2014).

As with any type of counseling, it’s important to find an Art Therapist that is competent and able to connect with clients. Art Therapists are required to complete specific education and specialized training.  Most therapists have at least a Master of Arts degree in Art Therapy, Counseling or Social Work. Many college programs for Art Therapists require that faculty and clinical supervisors are Board Certified Art Therapists or Registered Art Therapists (American Art Therapy Association, 2014). 

How Art Therapy Helps

Art Therapy uses a variety of art forms, and is a recognized and accepted form of mental health treatment. It is used in a variety of settings including clinics, psychiatric hospitals, and schools, and can be helpful for all age groups (Moon, 1994).  It can be an excellent adjunct to traditional talk therapy, or can be a stand-alone therapy.  As with other types of counseling, the goal of Art Therapy is to help the client feel better, heal, and return to enjoying and participating in life.   

It’s not about creating a work of art, but more about increasing self-expression and self-awareness though art. This type of therapy can be helpful for a variety of issues and conditions, including developmental, medical and psychological issues, including PTSD. Research supports the use of Art Therapy, when provided by a trained Art Therapist, to help people explore and express feelings and reduce emotional suffering (Moon, 1994). 

Research Support for Art Therapy 

There have been a number of case studies that demonstrate that Art Therapy can benefit people struggling with both emotional pain and physical illness. These studies have been conducted in the areas of burn recovery in children, addiction, eating disorders, childhood grief and sexual abuse in adolescents (Art Therapy, 2014).

In a study of Canadian soldiers, Josée Leclerc, PhD, ATR-BC, ATPQ, of Concordia University found that Art Therapy helped soldiers with PTSD to experience more positive emotions, learn about their symptoms, externalize symptoms, and have increased empathy for other soldiers. Art Therapy was found to offer an alternative form of expression for soldiers with PTSD (Art Therapy Helps, 2014).

Children can also benefit from Art Therapy. It can be scary and overwhelming for a child to talk about upsetting or traumatic events.  They may resist communicating and shut down in traditional talk-therapy, while painting a picture can be less threatening. Many children have a limited vocabulary to describe their feelings, and art and play are natural forms of communication for children (How Art Therapy Can Help, 2014).

We are all becoming more aware of how exposure to traumatic events can impact emotional health and everyday functioning.   These events can be overwhelming and can leave residual pain and suffering in their wake. Everyone responds differently when a traumatic event occurs, and different events will elicit different responses.  There is no right or wrong way to react or cope, and different people will benefit from different types of therapy. Art Therapy is one of many therapies that can help both children and adults move forward, heal, and recover after a traumatic event.


American Art Therapy Association Educational Requirements. (2014). Retrieved 2014, from

Art Therapy. (2014). Retrieved June 3, 2014, from

Art Therapy and Mental Health. (2009). Retrieved June 2, 2014, from

Art Quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved June 2, 2014, from

Art Therapy Helps Relieve PTSD Symptoms in Military Veterans. (2014). Retrieved June 2, 2014, from

How Art Therapy Can Help Children. (2014). Retrieved June 2, 2014, from

Moon, B. L. (1994). What kind of art therapy? The Arts in Psychotherapy, 21(4), 295-298. doi: 10.1016/0197-4556(94)90009-4

Russell, L., PhD. (n.d.). Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder DSM IV Criteria. Retrieved June 1, 2014, from

Why Art Therapy is Beneficial. (2014). Retrieved June 2, 2014, from


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